An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 234

Clinton Howell Antiques - May 22, 2023 - Issue 234

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The clarity that comes with expertise is less about instant comprehension and more about understanding signs that steer you to a conclusion that, on the whole, a piece of furniture is probably correct--meaning that it was made roughly in the time frame of its style. I have seen too many pieces of furniture where it is not possible to say, absolutely, that it is 18th century, 19th century or even late 20th century. Expertise in antique furniture comes from seeing the same things again and again and recognizing telltale signs of what you know is kosher, or what you learn is not. The popular concept of an antiques divvy, personified in the Lovejoy novels by John Grant, is utterly false. Although, I will readily admit that there are some people who are much better at sussing out a good piece of furniture (having a "good eye") than others, that is among amateurs, not professionals. Most of the professionals I know in the field are slow to judge and their judgment, at least on the items that they are unsure about, will be made once the piece is in their workshop and can be closely examined. Even then, doubts about age can persist.

It can be quite expensive for a dealer to buy something and then decide that the piece is not antique, so any judgment on the age of a piece of furniture will be hotly debated--it is definitely not a snap judgment. Dealers can be both decisive about some things and indecisive about others--it just is that way. Part of the reason is because English antique furniture of all periods has enjoyed a number of revivals since the 18th century, particularly at the end of the 19th century when pieces were made in much the same manner as they were in the 18th century and these objects now have a hundred plus years of use and aging to them. This makes for complex assessments. Furthermore, every dealer wants to find that unicorn that was made in the 18th century, knowing well that every other dealer is going to be very apprehensive about that unicorn. In a nutshell, this is why vetting is such a nightmare--a dealer who has determined an item is old has already given a great deal of time trying to determine the age of a piece and vetting committees, as a rule, don't have the same time to devote to understanding the dealer's logic and have to make quick decisions. And those decisions, particularly since the dealer has opted to bring it to a vetted fair, are hotly debated. Vetting committees, I might add, are often wrong for the best of reasons and sometimes for the worst of reasons. 

The unicorns, the pieces that startle us for their originality in some way or another, are what every dealer is looking for--these are the items that the cognoscenti want to collect. And as I noted, every unicorn will have its detractor, someone who won't believe that a piece in a form that they may never have seen before actually was made. Keeping an open mind can be very difficult, particularly when you have seen so much that fits within what you may believe to be known parameters. However, I would suggest that when you start really focusing on detail that you will find that there are many more dissimilarities among pieces than there are similarities. The Chippendale chair, for example, can vary a great deal, but the variations are often subtle and will include scale, depth of carving, proportion, timber and even condition. (Yes, condition can be a clue, as well.) This is where the clarity that I am referring to comes from--not from the recognition of the form, but from the details that separate one piece from the next. After a while, you will begin to see that there are far more unicorns, albeit in a very subtle fashion, than you might have thought possible. You just didn't know what to look for.